January 31, 2011

First Love (1939)

Originally posted on the blog Java's Journey

First Love (1939) stars Deanna Durbin in a modern adaptation of Cinderella.

Orphaned Connie (Durbin) graduates from an all-girls' school and goes to live with her Uncle (Eugene Pallette), his wacky wife (Leatrice Joy), his bossy daughter Barbara (Helen Parrish) and his lethargic son Walter (hilariously played by Lewis Howard). Connie finds love amid the madness.

The film also stars Kathleen Howard, who plays Connie's music teacher, Miss Wiggins. This character is a gruff sort of fairy godmother. Indeed, the film has several somewhat down-to-earth characters who keep this tale from becoming too treacly.
Miss Wiggins: "Crying your eyes out just because you don't have a home of your own to go to, or a mother and father to tell you how pretty and clever you are. Hmmph!"

Optimistic Connie greets the family in a simple traveling coat.
But Connie is surrounded by furs and elegance. This class difference is repeatedly played up.

Barbara, the socialite, uses Connie to trap an eligible guy named Ted Drake (Robert Stack's film debut) into marriage.
Barbara's activities

There are lots of mirrors in this movie. Not the least of which are the full length ones in Barbara's room, which we get to see since she's often primping for some event.

Why do the villainesses have great clothes and hairstyles?
Barbara's hair is cute.

In another mirror, the physical manifestation of Connie's conscience sticks its tongue out at her if she's having a pity party. It also provides Connie with a way to tell the audience what she's thinking when in private. This "magic" mirror also introduces the fantasy element that people expect of this classic story.

Connie does everyone's bidding....
Lazy Walter won't even hold his own cigarette. Hilarious.

... and is sort of caught in a web.
Connie finally fits in with everyone else in the house when the servants buy her an outfit for the ball.
I love Barbara's dress. The aunt is kind of kooky and so she gets the weird dress.

Connie has fallen for Ted, so Barbara makes sure her cousin doesn't go to the big ball to meet him. Our heroine shows up anyway while her friends on the police force detain the rest of the family.

Connie sings a song and Ted finds her irresistible.

They dance as Connie imagines the crowd doesn't exist. Nice bit of special effects.

Love that fake 1930s cityscape in the background.

Barbara discovers Connie has gone to the ball anyway and tells her cousin that Ted was just teasing.
Another mirror for Barbara

Believing Barbara, Connie goes back to the school as an instructor. She has also resigned herself to the life of "old maidenhood."
Miss Wiggins: "I'm a character - a crotchety, lovable old character. I hate being a character. Do you like cats?"

Miss Wiggins finds a way to tell Ted everything as Connie sings one last song then runs down the aisle into the arms of her love interest.

Just to put a button on the fairytale, the filmmakers end with this:

Deanna Durbin sings several songs, of course, including "Un Bel Di (One Fine Day)” from Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” and Johann Strauss' “Spring in My Heart” (lyrics by Ralph Freed).
In a banner year for Hollywood creativity, with such classics as The Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind, etc., First Love was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Art Direction; Best Cinematography, Black and White; and Best Music, Scoring.

This film is also noted for
Deanna Durbin's first screen kiss, which tends to be a big deal in a young actress's career (whether she wants it to be or not). I've often found the media and public interest in such things a little prurient and creepy. Still, I mention it here since the incident is reputed to have knocked the European Crisis off the front page; Deanna Durbin's star power was remarkable.

Parting Shots:
Lewis Howard's idle and acerbic Walter is a hoot. He's either leaning or lounging and only walks to get to the next resting spot. Fun stuff.


  1. Loved the updated Cinderella, story. The most memorable part of the film, for me, happens during "the ball," where Durbin and Stack dance for the first time. I loved the charming, shot of a crowded dance floor which fades away to the two dancing, to imply how the pair are so involved with each other that the rest of the world just fades away.

  2. Hi Dawn,
    I agree. It is a thoroughly enjoyable take on Cinderella. Deanna Durbin plays such an empathetic character here, and, of course, Robert Stack is as charming as a prince.

  3. After many years, when I was a teenager in Cape town I saw one Deanna Durbin movie,I could not find any other Deanna Durbin's movies.Maybe I did'nt look hard enough until I found a DVD of "First Love" at my local library.I loved it,and the singing was delightful.Here's to finding more.